New Political Structure
By Shahid Javed Burki
often write about politics but on some occasions
it is a subject that becomes difficult to ignore
even for a person whose primary interest is economics.
The present is one such moment. There cannot be
any doubt that what is unfolding at this time is
a unique event in Pakistan’s history.
It is unique since, for the first time in the country’s
troubled experience, highly centralized power is
yielding some of the space it occupies to other
players. And this is happening without much violence.
The Pakistani street is a participant in current
events but it has eschewed the use of power to confront
those who have the formal authority to use it. The
dynamics that is now working will proceed and a
new political structure will evolve. This will have
enormous consequences for the country’s economic
I see four trends at this time, each of which will
have a significant economic impact. They are: the
emergence of new players in the game of politics,
de-concentration of power from the center to the
governments at the lower level, the willingness
on the part of many to confront those who believe
that they have the right to impose their religious
beliefs on society, and the reshaping of relations
with the outside world.
Once the current electoral cycle is over, there
is no doubt that Pakistan will have a new political
structure. The concentration of power in the hands
of General Pervez Musharraf will yield to greater
disbursement as new claimants seek space for themselves
in the political system. Most of the new challengers
will have broad support from the public. The Supreme
Court will continue to assert its newly gained power.
As it does this other institutions of the legal
system will find reason for checking the power of
Civil society will exert itself and influence not
only those who wield power but also those who influence
it. The media — both print and electronic
— will champion various causes popular with
the segments of society it would want to cultivate
for both ideological and business reasons.
Islamabad will lose some of the authority it currently
enjoys. It will have to share power with governments
at the sub-national levels. Following the elections
to the national and provincial assemblies, the interests
of the provinces will inevitably diverge from those
of the center. Pakistan, with a population of 165
million, cannot be governed from Islamabad as has
been the case for decades. Some of the services
the government must deliver can be provided efficiently
and effectively only when those providing them are
close to the people and accountable to them.
When the history of the first Musharraf period (1999-2007)
is written, what will be applauded is the decentralization
of power to the local governments. This devolution
is being resisted by those who stand to lose if
power devolves to the local representatives of the
Among those in opposition to this trend are the
provinces who don’t want to lose the authority
they are acquiring from Islamabad. Some political
parties are also not keen to develop the new system
since they are as centralized in their structure
as the current apparatus of the government.
The issue of the role of religion in politics and
in the way society functions has been contentious
ever since the country gained independence.
The question the citizenry must answer is relatively
simple: should those who believe that only they
know how to interpret Islam for the rest of society
have the license to impose their will? The answer
is as simple as the question itself.
A society must be guided by the laws it devises
and not by someone else’s narrow interpretation
of what the Almighty wants.
And then there is the question of Pakistan’s
relations with the countries in its neighborhood
as well as the larger powers. Foreign relations
in the past were guided by three considerations:
the perceived need to balance the power of India,
the need for foreign capital for augmenting the
low rates of domestic savings and support for the
Muslim world. Will a more dispersed political system
continue to view foreign relations from these three
Having pursued an India-centric foreign policy,
some among Pakistan’s current political elite,
including President Pervez Musharraf, have begun
to see the wisdom of benefiting from India’s
economic size. With this recognition will come a
significant reorientation of foreign policy. Pakistan
has, at times, followed America’s strategic
interests rather than its own for the simple reason
that it has been economically very dependent on
Washington. That dependence has declined because
of the restructuring of capital flows into the country.
This too should lead to change in the direction
of foreign affairs.
Then there is the question of Pakistan’s relations
with the Muslim world. In this area, the policymakers
were guided more by emotions than by the country’s
strategic interests. Pakistan, more than most Muslim
countries, has unquestionably supported the Palestinian
cause. Its championship has been more vocal than
that of some of the Arab countries. Even when the
late Yasser Arafat failed to support Pakistan on
Kashmir, Pakistan’s commitment to the Palestinians
did not flag.
The time has come to weigh relations with the Muslim
world from the perspective of Pakistan’s national
interest rather than on the basis of romantic notions
about the Muslim Ummah. Under President Musharraf
not enough attention was given by Islamabad to craft
the country’s economic strategy in light of
political and foreign policy imperatives. The general
did well to leave the management of the economy
to a group of professionals. The professionals,
however, were either not inclined or were not able
to strategize on developing an economy that would
serve all segments of the population. The result
of this approach was that while a decent level of
growth was achieved in the gross domestic product,
it failed to address a number of problems.
Among these is the continued dependence of the economy
on external capital flows and the reliance on a
few capital-intensive sectors for producing growth.
This approach, in turn, has failed to deal with
the high incidence of poverty, low level of human
development, continuing economic and social backwardness
of women, increasing disparity in income and in
the development of different provinces.
Practically no attention has been paid to the development
of the institutions that would support growth and
alleviate poverty over the long term.
Property rights are not fully protected and the
legal structure does not provide protection to investors
and consumers. The government has neglected large
cities which continue to function without the adequate
provision of basic services particularly to the
poorer segments of the population.
Islamabad has also failed to develop an export sector
that could have taken advantage of some remarkable
developments in the global economy. In some areas,
the failures outweigh the successes.
With a new political structure evolving, this is
a good time to turn the state’s attention
towards these economic problems. (Courtesy Dawn)